What Does Emotional Dysregulation Mean?

<p>skynesher / Getty Images</p>

skynesher / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Geralyn Dexter, PhD, LMHC

Emotional dysregulation occurs when you have trouble managing and controlling your emotions. Symptoms of emotional dysregulation may include emotional outbursts, temper tantrums, and even self-harming behaviors.

It's worth noting that emotional dysregulation is common in young children, and regulating your emotions is something you learn to do as you develop and mature. But when emotional dysregulation lasts into adolescence or adulthood, it’s usually caused by an underlying mental health condition, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, or autism spectrum disorder.

Thankfully, there are several ways to prevent and manage emotional dysregulation. The key is to treat the underlying condition causing emotional dysregulation and adopt positive lifestyle habits that benefit your overall mental health.

Symptoms of Emotional Dysregulation

The opposite of emotion dysregulation is emotional regulation. People who can regulate their emotions exhibit control over their feelings—even intense feelings. They can adapt to adversity and plan ahead so that they will be able to regulate their emotional reactions. They can accept their feelings and function well despite emotional fluctuations.

On the other hand, people who are experiencing emotional dysregulation may:

  • Be unable to recognize when their emotions are getting the better of them

  • React emotionally without thinking

  • Have frequent emotional outbursts

  • Feel unable to accept overwhelming emotions

  • Experience trouble functioning in day-to-day life

  • Exhibit inappropriate emotional responses

  • Show emotional responses that don’t match social norms

  • Go from “zero to a hundred” when it comes to emotional reactions

Symptoms in Children

Emotional dysregulation is generally more common in children. It can be normal for a child to lose their temper at times and to experience significant frustration, especially during the toddler and preschool years. But when these outbursts are frequent (i.e., occurring several times a week) and happen in older children, the child may be experiencing emotional dysregulation that needs to be addressed.

Signs of emotional dysregulation in children include:

  • Temper tantrums

  • Uncontrolled crying

  • Kicking, trashing, or screaming

  • Harming themselves or others

  • Vandalizing property or breaking items

  • Yelling or cursing loudly

  • Threatening violence

  • Decreased ability to function normally at school or home

Potential Causes of Emotional Dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation is common and developmentally normal in babies, toddlers, and young children. It becomes a concern when older children and adults show signs of it.

Emotional dysregulation doesn’t usually happen on its own—it’s usually connected to an underlying disorder or condition. In older children and adults, emotional dysregulation usually occurs due to underlying conditions like ADHD, autism, or trauma. When left untreated or unmanaged, these conditions may heighten emotional dysregulation symptoms. Getting a diagnosis and starting treatment can help improve symptoms and overall emotional well-being.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most commonly associated conditions that causes emotional dysregulation in both children and adults. ADHD causes symptoms like hyperactivity and impulsivity, both of which can contribute to emotional dysregulation. People with ADHD may also have trouble recognizing their emotions.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when you experience a traumatic event or circumstance, such as surviving a violent event, accident, or abusive situation. One main symptom of PTSD is the inability to manage emotions, especially emotions connected to fear, anxiety, hyperarousal, and hypervigilance.

Children and adults who experienced early childhood trauma may also be more prone to emotional dysregulation.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often causes obsessive and intrusive thoughts and behaviors such as excessive hand washing or obsessive counting. Research has found that people with OCD also often exhibit signs of emotional dysregulation. This may include an inability to accept emotions and difficulty controlling impulsive behaviors.

Bipolar Disorder (BD)

Bipolar disorder (BD) involves cycling through periods of depression and then periods of mania (intense elevated moods). People with bipolar disorder often have trouble controlling their emotions and experience extreme mood shifts, both of which can cause emotional dysregulation. Studies have found that children with bipolar disorder often show signs of increased emotional intensity and have difficulty managing how they feel.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Research is limited at this time on the relationships between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and emotional regulation. But some researchers have hypothesized that people with ASD have an increased risk of developing emotional dysregulation. For example, people with ASD may exhibit repetitive behaviors, trouble with social skills, and difficulty recognizing emotions in themselves, all of which are related to emotional dysregulation.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) occur when a severe and sudden impact on your head causes brain damage. Emotional dysregulation is a common symptom among people with TBIs. In addition, people with TBIs may have a higher risk of developing mood disorders, like anxiety and depression. Emotional dysregulation following a TBI may also lead to symptoms of substance use disorder.

Treatment Options

While emotional dysregulation can be difficult to experience, fortunately, treatment options are available. If you or your child has symptoms of emotional dysregulation, seeing your primary care provider for testing is a good first step. If your provider suspects an underlying condition is causing your symptoms, they will likely refer you to a mental health professional (such as a psychiatrist or psychologist) or a neurologist (a doctor who specializes in the brain and spinal cord) for evaluation.

Many of the mental health conditions that cause emotional dysregulation use psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, medications, or a combination of these for treatment. Your exact treatment plan will depend on the underlying cause of your symptoms.

For example, if you have ADHD, stimulant medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help improve symptoms. But if you have PTSD, therapies like CBT, exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy are useful. Sometimes PTSD treatment also involves medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Prevention Strategies

Taking a preventative approach to emotional dysregulation is essential. Children whose emotional dysregulation issues aren’t addressed early on can end up with long-term mental health conditions and behavioral. One study found that teens who had emotional dysregulation issues were more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, mood disorders, and behavioral disorders as adults.

Addressing the underlying issues causing symptoms of emotional dysregulation can help prevent it. This involves receiving therapy or medication to treat the condition you or your child are experiencing that’s contributing to your emotional dysregulation. It can also help to learn what lifestyle factors (like diet, sleep, or stress) may worsen your symptoms. In addition to psychological or medical treatment, consider these strategies to manage your emotions:

  • Try mindfulness or meditation

  • Keep a mood journal

  • Accept your emotions as they are

  • Engage in positive self-talk (e.g., "I can do this")

  • Identify what triggers emotional outbursts and avoid these situations if possible

  • Use grounding techniques

  • Talk to your loved ones about how you're feeling and ask for their support

A Quick Review

Emotional dysregulation occurs when you experience difficulty managing, recognizing, or coping with your emotions. This often results in emotional outbursts, extreme moods, and trouble functioning in daily life. Underlying health conditions like ADHD, PTSD, and BD are common causes of emotional dysregulation.

Treating the underlying condition through therapy or medication will typically help symptoms of emotional dysregulation resolve.

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